Disability and Art
The theme of this year’s Disability History Month
From earliest times having an impairment has been part of the human condition. The urge to portray, draw, paint, carve, sculpt our existence is also an essential part of being human, illustrating the fundamental human desire to communicate and make art as a way of understanding ourselves and our place in the world. How these realities interact is the theme of this year’s Disability History Month.
Several of the carvings in the British Museum Ice Age exhibition showed representations of disabled people 40,000 years ago. Many ancient Egyptian representations show gods such as the diminutive Bes, God of dreams and dancing or the high ranking Seneb, also a short person. From Mesopotamia to Egypt votive offerings were made, showing or describing impairments which people wanted to be rid of. Ancient Greek pottery represents the tales of blind Homer eg Odysseus escaping blinded Polyphemus’ cave clinging to a ram, or the club footed God, Hephaestus. Much of the representation of disabled people for the next 1700 years was to do with the visual interpretation of Biblical stories first in illuminated manuscripts and church windows, then in oils, then the more widely distributed prints. Miracle cures of blindness and lameness feature strongly.
In the Enlightenment (C18th) we begin to see pictures of disabled people based on their notoriety or ‘freakishness’. These would include Duncan Campbell the Deaf fortune teller (1670-1730); Thomas Inglefield ( b 1749), the artist with short arms and legs or Swedish Magdalena Rudolfs Thuinbuj (b 1612) with no arms. The etching shows her capable of performing all domestic tasks.
Many more famous artists were themselves disabled for some or part of their careers. Given the negative stereotypes, they mainly concealed their impairments but they often impacted on their work. Michaelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci are now both thought to have been on the autistic spectrum which may explain their prodigious output. Rembrandt had an astigmatism, clear in his more than 30 self- portraits. This gave him a visual advantage in his large tableau paintings. Goya had deafness and depression which partly explains the shift from court painter to his ‘Black paintings’. Frida Khalo had polio as child and at 19 a serious motor accident leading to back and leg problems. Along with her socialism and love of native Mexican culture her impairment became the main palette she worked on. Toulouse-Lautrec had a congenital condition which led to his short stature and malformed head, a major factor in him becoming a great artist and then drinking himself to death. Edvard Munch and Van Gogh were just a few of the many artists with mental health issues that inspired and eclipsed their work. Monet and several other impressionists had visual impairments which played a major part in their work. Georgia O’Keefe became blind, instructing helpers to complete her paintings. UKDHM is producing a timeline of all the above and more with many educational activities.
In the late 1970’s and 1980’s the disability arts movement grew up, based explicitly on social model thinking and empowering disabled people to self representation. Working with Shape Arts, UKDHM have helped produce four animations and activities which are part of the National Disability Archive and Collection (NDACA): http://ukdhm.org/disability-arts-movement-in-uk.
UKDHM are holding a day workshop on the above. Saturday 21st October 2017 for teachers, lecturers and others. To book a place (£20) contact email@example.com. Broadsheet and online materials available in October for November/December.
Richard Rieser, World of Inclusion